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TED: A dig for humanity's origins.

But I was very lucky to have been brought up in Kenya, essentially accompanying my parents to Lake Turkana in search of human remains. And we were able to dig up, when we got old enough, fossils such as this, a slender-snouted crocodile. And we dug up giant tortoises, and elephants and things like that. But when I was 12, as I was in this picture, a very exciting expedition was in place on the west side, when they found essentially the skeleton of this Homo erectus.

I could relate to this Homo erectus skeleton very well, because I was the same age that he was when he died. And I imagined him to be tall, dark-skinned. His brothers certainly were able to run long distances chasing prey, probably sweating heavily as they did so. He was very able to use stones effectively as tools. And this individual himself, this one that I'm holding up here, actually had a bad back. He'd probably had an injury as a child. He had a scoliosis and therefore must have been looked after quite carefully by other female, and probably much smaller, members of his family group, to have got to where he did in life, age 12. Unfortunately for him, he fell into a swamp and couldn't get out. Essentially, his bones were rapidly buried and beautifully preserved.

And he remained there until 1.6 million years later, when this very famous fossil hunter, Kamoya Kimeu, walked along a small hillside and found that small piece of his skull lying on the surface amongst the pebbles, recognized it as being hominid. It's actually this little piece up here on the top. Well, an excavation was begun immediately, and more and more little bits of skull started to be extracted from the sediment. And what was so fun about it was this: the skull pieces got closer and closer to the roots of the tree, and fairly recently the tree had grown up, but it had found that the skull had captured nice water in the hillside, and so it had decided to grow its roots in and around this, holding it in place and preventing it from washing away down the slope. We began to find limb bones; we found finger bones, the bones of the pelvis, vertebrae, ribs, the collar bones, things that had never, ever been seen before in Homo erectus. It was truly exciting. He had a body very similar to our own, and he was on the threshold of becoming human.

Well, shortly afterwards, members of his species started to move northwards out of Africa, and you start to see fossils of Homo erectus in Georgia, China and also in parts of Indonesia. So, Homo erectus was the first human ancestor to leave Africa and begin its spread across the globe. Some exciting finds, again, as I mentioned, from Dmanisi, in the Republic of Georgia. But also, surprising finds recently announced from the Island of Flores in Indonesia, where a group of these human ancestors have been isolated, and have become dwarfed, and they're only about a meter in height. But they lived only 18,000 years ago, and that is truly extraordinary to think about.

Just to put this in terms of generations, because people do find it hard to think of time, Homo erectus left Africa 90,000 generations ago. We evolved essentially from an African stock. Again, at about 200,000 years as a fully-fledged us. And we only left Africa about 70,000 years ago. And until 30,000 years ago, at least three upright-walking apes shared the planet Earth.

The question now is, well, who are we? We're certainly a polluting, wasteful, aggressive species, with a few nice things thrown in, perhaps. For the most part, we're not particularly pleasant at all. We have a much larger brain than our ape ancestors. Is this a good evolutionary adaptation, or is it going to lead us to being the shortest-lived hominid species on planet Earth?

And what is it that really makes us us? I think it's our collective intelligence. It's our ability to write things down, our language and our consciousness. From very primitive beginnings, with a very crude tool kit of stones, we now have a very advanced tool kit, and our tool use has really reached unprecedented levels: we've got buggies to Mars; we've mapped the human genome; and recently even created synthetic life, thanks to Craig Venter.

And we've also managed to communicate with people all over the world, from extraordinary places. Even from within an excavation in northern Kenya, we can talk to people about what we're doing. As Al Gore so clearly has reminded us, we have reached extraordinary numbers of people on this planet. Human ancestors really only survive on planet Earth, if you look at the fossil record, for about, on average, a million years at a time. We've only been around for the past 200,000 years as a species, yet we've reached a population of more than six and a half billion people.

And last year, our population grew by 80 million. I mean, these are extraordinary numbers. You can see here, again, taken from Al Gore's book. But what's happened is our technology has removed the checks and balances on our population growth. We have to control our numbers, and I think this is as important as anything else that's being done in the world today. But we have to control our numbers, because we can't really hold it together as a species.

My father so appropriately put it, that "We are certainly the only animal that makes conscious choices that are bad for our survival as a species." Can we hold it together? It's important to remember that we all evolved in Africa. We all have an African origin. We have a common past and we share a common future. Evolutionarily speaking, we're just a blip. We're sitting on the edge of a precipice, and we have the tools and the technology at our hands to communicate what needs to be done to hold it together today. We could tell every single human being out there, if we really wanted to. But will we do that, or will we just let nature take its course?

Well, to end on a very positive note, I think evolutionarily speaking, this is probably a fairly good thing, in the end. I'll leave it at that, thank you very much.

-Louise Leakey



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